Boy oh boy, was "My Cousin Vinny" a mistake for director Jonathan Lynn.
The pacing was sure, the performances hilarious, the script crisp and clever. Altogether an enjoyable time at the movies.
So naturally, when Lynn returns to courtroom farce, as he does in "Trial and Error," what other film is it going to be compared with? You got it. And next to "My Cousin Vinny," "Trial and Error" is cruel and unusual punishment.
The film is out of calibration. Performances are either too broad or too flat. The rhythm is off, with too much cross-cutting between scenes that don't go anywhere. And the script? If it please the court: NOT FUNNY.
"Trial and Error" reprises the promising idea of a big-city lawyer taking his game to the sticks. In this case, it's amiable Jeff Daniels, a passenger on the escalator to conventional success. He's Charlie Tuttle, Yale-educated, newly named partner in a Los Angeles law firm, who's about to marry the senior partner's spoiled daughter, Tiffany (Alexandra Wentworth).
But before he heads off to that life of little pleasure, Charlie's sent to Paradise Bluffs, Nev., a desolate town in the gloriously filmed Rockies, which is about to tar-and-feather Tiffany's uncle, a con artist named Benny Gibbs (Rip Torn).
The weak link in Charlie's life resume is his childhood best friend, Richard Rietti, an out-of-work actor (Michael Richards of "Seinfeld") who is throwing Charlie's bachelor party. When Charlie goes to Nevada, Richard relocates the festivities there. Charlie's partying renders him non-compos mentis, prompting Richard to assume Charlie's identity in court, where he simultaneously tussles with and woos the prosecutor, played by a grating Jessica Steen.
Yes, it's a slender premise for a feature comedy and, by gum, it just might have worked. Shakespeare is reported to have had some success with mistaken identity. But the screenplay, by Sara and Gregory Bernstein, spends most of its time running in place. The spectacle of an out-of-his-element Richard in the courtroom runs thin quickly.
One of the reasons it does is the odd choice Lynn and Richards make. Richards' character should be the comic center of the movie, a person who finds himself in a scheme way beyond his reach and competence.
The delight of the movie should be in watching that character go through all sorts of contortions to make the unworkable work. It's precisely the part Richards plays every week on TV, but for some perverse reason, he and Lynn rarely let Kramer come out to play. Instead, for much of the time, Richards plays a regular Joe.
But, the film already has a regular Joe in Daniels, an intelligent actor who again gives a likable but forgettable performance. His Charlie is so exercised over the fix his friend has gotten him in that it causes him to question the emptiness of his whole life.
It also leads him to fall in love with a beautiful waitress (Charlize Theron of "2 Days in the Valley"), whom Lynn, to his discredit, insists on filming lasciviously. She's got plenty of California sex appeal, but her character doesn't make much sense. She's a Walt Whitman-reading waitress who wastes no time falling in love with Charlie, though he's been nothing but aggressively rude. Then, she nobly steps aside when Charlie seems headed for a reunion with Tiffany.
The wait is long, but finally, the great Torn, in goatee and bolo tie, gives an amusing, weepy defense of himself, all the while scanning the courtroom to see how his performance is playing. Also satisfying is Austin Pendleton, who, as the put-upon judge, delivers his lines with great comic flourish. That the words aren't funny isn't his fault.
In its ham-fisted way, "Trial and Error" struggles to deliver a message. Good fortune awaits those who finally come clean. Charlie and Richard both get their girls when they tell the truth. The truth about "Trial and Error" isn't as rewarding.
'Trial and Error'
Starring Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated PG-13 (implied sex)
Sun score **
Pub Date: 5/30/97